I recently had the privilege of interviewing Daimon Caulk, Principal of Modal, Inc. Daimon and his team produce great work and his responses in this interview provide excellent insight for the rest of us. I hope you find it to be helpful and that you enjoy getting to know more about Daimon.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’m a husband of one and father of three. I was born and raised in a small town that had a great Art teacher- Mr. Ron Fabin who encouraged me to attend Design School. I’m a classically trained Graphic Designer and Illustrator. I’ve got a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. It’s a really good type and ad school. There I learned the value of research, understanding the business problem, and solving it visually. I love VCU!
Is Modal a one-man operation or do you have other designers/developers?
Nope. There are five of us. We’re a tidy bunch with a boutique type of atmosphere.
Modal has been around since 2001. What has allowed you to be successful in an industry with so many competitors?
I can attribute any success to God first. Then I’d say it’s my focus on User Experience. Even though we brand companies, create tradeshow collateral, develop social media campaigns, and design web sites our focus is always on the bigger picture of how the user desires to interact with the product. I think it’s our niche.
You’ve worked on projects with some large companies like Marriot and Network Solutions. How were you able to land those projects and what type of impact have they had on your career?
In most cases we were referred by an existing vendor. Most of these organizations require you to come in directly from a preferred vendor so we end up riding in on someone else’s existing relationship. As far as the impact on my career- it’s great for the portfolio. Known brands add a certain legitimacy to your company. Plus it was a great opportunity to see the inner workings of these large companies. I worked with some really great people.
Can you give us an overview of your process for designing a website for a client?
We kick off the project with an introduction of our team and the client team. We review the project scope and goals making sure to emphasize that we will conduct our research and may find that we need to refine both the scope and goals in order to achieve success. Next we spend time getting to know the organization, their products/services, competitors, and brand values. We found that if we just go about creating a good looking site it falls short of goals and really has little to offer- it has no soul. But by understanding the organization we can apply their own philosophies to how we know things should work. After we get to know the company and competitive landscape we work with their existing customers through interviews, focus groups, and/or usability testing. Sometimes we baseline their existing offering so that when we create the new design we can prove our value by retesting and measuring against the baseline.
Then we go into our information architecture activities (based upon user content needs), wireframing (especially useful for low-fi testing), and then design. Each step is iterative for us. After we’ve created high fidelity screen mockups we either test them again or go through some sort of evaluation process. Next comes our coding and testing phases. We like to think that we stick to each activity religiously but the reality is that sometimes project constraints don’t allow it. But we do make sure that what we create is easy to use and good looking.
Since you offer a variety of services including social media management, SEO, and usability testing, do you find that most of your clients wind up using you for more than just design?
Yes. We may start by redesigning their site and next thing you know we’re working on their marketing collateral for a tradeshow. Or we’ll evaluate their existing web application and then provide formal usability testing. We feel like we can offer a bit of everything because we are the ones that understand the value of their business proposition. Because we research most of the work we do we are intimate with the needs of the business and their customers. I believe that’s why we are better positioned to offer these other complimentary services.
What advice do you have for other designers who would like to be self employed or start an agency but have no business experience?
You know that’s a tough question. I would say if you want to remain a designer hire a business partner. Because design is such an emotional exercise sometimes it is difficult to divorce yourself from it and pay attention to things like profit and loss statements, contracts, and balance sheets. So you really need to prepare yourself for that. Also, think about becoming a craftsman if you aren’t one already. Learn as much as you can about the history of the industry especially graphic design and advertising. It’s not about the tools that you use, it’s all about how you apply your knowledge of your craft to solve business problems. Remember, at the end of the day we need to satisfy our clients.
On the business side reach out to your local Small Business Administration (SBA) office. They offer accounting classes, contracts classes, and a slew of other resources. They were instrumental in Modal’s beginning.
Are there any current or upcoming projects that you are especially excited about?
You know we recently launched the redesign of Montgomery College with our partner NewCity. The client was really interested in the User Centered Design approach. They understood the value of the process and how it effected their brand and users. We spent a good amount of time with their faculty, staff, prospective, and current students. And I tell you what, I came out of the experience with a desire to enroll! See that’s what our process is all about. Getting to know the brand so well that we feel overwhelmingly compelled to contribute to its success.
Your portfolio site is powered by Joomla and I see that you have built some sites on WordPress. Do you have a preferred CMS?
We are CMS agnostic. For instance, most CMS’s are overkill for most clients’ needs. Joomla performs wonderfully for medium sized sites with short turnarounds. Plus Joomla is easy on our designers. WordPress is becoming a really nice small site solution. The use of Pages and Posts make it easy for our clients to update much of their content without the need for our intervention. We also like Drupal for larger sites. It’s a solid solution for deeper sites that have many content contributors and workflow.
I see from your site that you are open to working with interns. For any of our readers, what do you look for in potential interns and how should someone apply?
We are always looking for design interns that have a portfolio that shows that they understand the basic tenets of design and how to apply them to the Web. And of course we are looking for sharp people who understand social media- more importantly how social media can help our clients’ brands. If anyone is interested they can email me directly at (email@example.com). I will review each portfolio and resume.